Diving Lore

Offshore Activity

Offshore History

North Sea - UK Sector

Dawning of the Oil Era

Following finds of gas onshore in Holland and Eastern England in the 1950s it was noticed that the geological rock content was similar. When a huge gas find was made at Ten Boer near Groningen, Netherlands it set the stage for the North Sea Oil and Gas exploration. The Groningen Field was developed further and found to be a colossal discovery. Seizing on the theory that, in between the two countries in the North Sea more oil and gas might exist survey ships were sent forth. By the mid 1960s North Sea oil discoverys were being made offshore.
By the 1970s the central and northern North Sea sectors were being explored and huge discoveries were made, amazing all in the oil community and the public at large. In 1971 The mighty Brent oil field was among the first of the giant offshore oil fields discovered. In 1974 the Buchan oil field was found and by now offshore platforms were being constructed en mass in Northern England and Scotland. Although it wasn't until the price of oil had risen in the 1980s for further fields to be fully developed that the oil boom fully flowed.

Oil Boom

The oil finds in the North Sea were an economic blessing, indeed and could not of come sooner. The Middle-Eastern oil crisis that hit other countries hard was negated somewhat in the UK and Norway. So as government ministers held the 'black gold' (crude oil) aloft triumphantly, Aberdeen became the rising star of Scotlands cities as it was declared the oil capital of Europe. More than a few denizens became (and continue to become) wealthy on the influx of trade from the oil industry. In a short space of time its airport expanded to accommodated two heliports and upgrading to deal with the increased demand. Shetlands and the Orkneys too reaped the benefits as Oil and Gas Terminals began to spring up there. At Skatster a purpose built airport was constructed, acting as a way station for oil workers travelling to and from the northern North Sea Platforms. South of the border in England the gas discoveries in the southern North Sea sector saw a similar, albeit lesser effect on Great Yarmouth and surrounding areas.

Piper Alpha Disaster

Apart from some minor strike action (soon resolved) and average oil prices all seemed well in the North Sea during the 1980s. That was until 6th July, 1988 when disaster struck the Piper Alpha platform. The causes and reasons were like many tragedies; a combination of faults leading to the terrible a chain reaction of events. At the end of a busy dayshift an engineer going off-shift failed to pass on important information verbally, instead he left the work permit (detailing that a compressor was not to be activated) on the desk next to control room supervisor who absently filed it away.

As the nightshift began to start work the main compressor suddenly failed. Not wishing for the platforms drilling equipment to fail (very expensive) the duty control manager searched and found on a different file the secondary compressor was good for operation. It wasn't and soon gas began escape from the pipework. This resulted in a series of catastrophic explosions minutes later. Workers on the nearby Claymore and Tartan platform looked on in horror as the Piper Alpha erupted into flames. The heat and flame killed many, and the control room was destroyed paralysing the command structure and evactuation plans, although such was the heat and flame that launching of the rescue craft was impossible. Two fearless oil workers donned fire fighting gear and attempted a do-or-die mission below deck to manually activate the deluge system (A ferocious firefighting system which had controversially been deactivated due to divers working in the vicinity of the platform). They both rushed at speed into the flames never to be never seen again.
One survivor desperate to flee rushed onto the helideck where the heat instantly melted his hard hat as he plunged over 200 feet to the sea. Other survivors seeing the smoke begin to penetrate the 'safe refuge' module abandoned hope of helicopter rescue and took the plunge into the sea.

A Fast Rescue Craft from the Lowland Cavalier rescued several survivors but an explosion killed two of the crew thus blunting their efforts. The firefighting ship Tharos was driven off when the heat began to melt steel on board ship itself! It could only return after two hours of fighting the flames and the Tartans pipeline (feeding the flames) was ruptured. No rescue helicopter could risk landing land due high winds and further gas and pipeline rupture which caused flames of over 100 meters to soar up into the sky. The leaping survivors made a harsh but wise choice in abandoning the fireproof refuge, for about an hour later the entire accommodation module along with other parts of the platform crashed into the sea. Eventually the legendary oil firefighter Red Adair, fighting gale force winds put the flames out. 167 men were killed and there were only 62 survivors.

There had been an earlier oil platform disaster in 1980 when a Norwegian platform collapsed into the sea, but this was a structural issue whereas the Piper Alpha disaster resulted from a safety lapse, no matter how small the root. In the weeks that followed Royal Navy Demolition Divers detonated shaped charges on the subsea jacket of the Piper Alpha, thus allowing the North Sea to claim it. Piper Alpha

It was a grim episode in the North Seas history and to this day many other oil workers that knew friends that perished on board remark upon it as the survivors still live with that harrowing night. The Cullen Report that followed concluded in 1990 that new safe systems of work offshore were needed. A massive fine was also levied against the Tartan Platforms operators for greedily not shutting off the pipelines (which fed Piper Alpha's fires greatly).

The North Sea Matures

Through the 1990s The North Sea sectors production increased but new discoveries fell. The safety factors from the Cullen Report saw fruition having been taken on board wholeheartedly by UKOOA (United Kingdom Offshore Oil Association). Reaching a peak in 1999 oil is now beginning to slacken off slightly. Production fell in 2004 by 10% and in 2005 to nearly 13%. The trend towards using FPSOs or Drill Ships took precedence from the old 'Hub and Satellite Platforms' that had led the way previously. Many now believe that the North Seas oil and gas has reached the half-way point of its life and production may fall by even greater margins. That said the North Sea still holds most of Europe's oil reserves and is one of the largest non-OPEC producing regions of the world. Indeed the intriguing nature of 'oil reservoir recovery' is now proving worthwhile. As when some newly leased platforms are re-activated and oil fields previously abandoned due to lack of oil have 'recovered' to levels worth extraction it presents a new avenue of approach. One company 'Talisman Energy' specialises in optimising extraction from such areas and has had very promising results from many of its projects. North Sea Safety continues to climb to new heights as the lofty goal of 'An Accident Free North Sea' is strived for and gains ground. The 21st Century see's the mighty three-platform Buzzard Installation is now the newest platform operating with further exploration from the oil companies underway. Speculation is rife on the future of the North Sea, what lies in wait can only be guessed at.

History | Big Picture | Oil Production Zones
The Future of Oil


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